Recently, a well-meaning friend of mine disclosed my trans status to a friend of his, someone I hadn’t known previously. I don’t know that I ever would have found out that he had done so if his friend hadn’t slipped up and referred to me as “she” in front of a group of people.
He quickly corrected himself and moved on with whatever he had been saying, but for me, the damage had been done.
That one little pronoun ripped away my confidence and left me stunned and confused. Although it still happens once in a while, being seen as female has been a rare occurrence for me over the past six months, so I asked myself why this person whom I had just met would confuse me with a woman? Was it obvious that I was trans? Was I kidding myself, walking around in the world thinking that I no longer appeared female to most people?
Unsure as to whether the guy had read me as female/trans all on his own or whether someone had told him, I took my friend aside and asked him. He seemed genuinely confused as to why I would have an issue with his disclosure of my trans status when he has been one of my most thoughtful, supportive friends and he was trying to be helpful.
This situation has me thinking that just because a person might be a relative, friend or ally of the trans community, or even a trans person themselves, that doesn’t mean that they know and understand the possible consequences that could result from disclosing someone’s trans status, so I am offering some information here that I hope will be helpful regarding this topic.
I thought I would start with a page from The Gender Booklet at thegenderbook.com (which I actually found at the transbeautiful blog) because it gives a handy summation of issues to consider when being an ally (or even friend or relative) of people in the trans community.
A number of blog posts could be written about the statements on this simple yet informative document page (and probably already have been by others), but today we’ll just focus on, “Please don’t out me as trans without my permission.”
In listing the reasons behind this statement, I am presenting them in no particular order or priority and I am writing them as though directed toward readers who might not understand why it’s problematic to out people as trans.
When I refer to trans folks in this post, I basically stay within the man/woman binary, but there are trans people who do not identify within the gender binary. I think that what I have written here would, in principal, still apply, with the exception of some of the references I make to people identifying as men or women.
I should also mention that pretty much everything you’ll read here is my opinion and I do not speak for all trans people. Your mileage may vary.
1. Safety first
In April of 2010, Colle Carpenter, a 27-year-old trans man, was physically assaulted in a men’s room at Cal State University Long Beach, the attacker using a knife to carve the word “it” into his chest. Two months later, a man attacked trans man Lance Reyna in a Houston Community College men’s room, putting a knife to his throat, then beating and robbing him and giving him a concussion by kicking him in the head. In April of 2011, Chrissy Lee Polis, a 22-year-old transgender woman, was brutally attacked by two women in a Baltimore-suburb McDonald’s while employees stood by and watched, one of them filming a video of the assault that went viral after being posted on-line. The attackers beat Chrissy so severely, she went into an epileptic seizure on the floor of the restaurant.
I provide these examples here to highlight the threat of violence that trans people face simply for being themselves, and to illustrate that outing someone as trans compromises their safety. Granted, these are high-profile incidents, but don’t think that these are isolated cases. Aggressions against trans people occur at various levels of severity on a fairly regular basis. I know a number of trans men and women who have been harassed and/or physically assaulted by people they had come out to or by people, including complete strangers, who had somehow learned of their trans status. Trust me on this one; you cannot predict how anyone will react to this information, so it’s best not to disclose it.
2. It’s private, medical information
Steps that a trans person may take to transition are recognized by the American Medical Association, other health-care organizations, the U.S. Tax Court and by many trans people as medical treatments for the misalignment of their physical sex and gender identity. Information about a trans person’s status and/or transition should therefore be held in confidence just like any other person’s private medical issues and treatments and should not be disclosed.
3. Not all trans people are activists and those who are might not want to be all the time
Some trans people don’t mind being in the public eye. Trans people involved in activism may be fully and publicly out as trans, such as community activists and educators Matt Kailey, Jamison Green, Kate Bornstein or Donna Rose. However, not all trans folks want to be involved in activism – they just want to live their lives with a level of anonymity that’s no different from that of non-trans people – and those who are involved as activists might not wish to wear that hat all the time. Maybe in the corner of their world where you happen to be, a trans activist might want to be incognito. It’s best to leave it up to the trans person as to when and where they care to disclose their trans status, if they care to do so at all.
4. Match making or un-making
Let’s say that a non-trans person you know has met your trans friend/relative, finds them attractive and would like to get to know them better. Your first knee-jerk reaction might be to inform the individual about the trans status of your friend/relative, but please consider why you might be having that reaction.
Perhaps you think that the trans person’s body might not be what the other person expects, but unless you have seen the trans person naked, you do not know what their body looks like, and even if you have, how can you know with certainty that the potential suitor won’t find their body appealing?
Or maybe you decide that you will out your trans friend/relative so you can spare them the negative reaction that you’re sure they’ll receive once they disclose their trans status to the interested party. That’s your own opinion, however. In other words, what you might consider to be a deal breaker (i.e. someone’s trans status) might not be an issue for another person. People are rejected in the dating scene for all sorts of reasons and these two potential love birds might not ever make it past the first date for reasons that have nothing to do with the trans status of one of them.
Ultimately, whether a trans person and a non-trans person are a match for each other should be left for them to discover. Don’t be a match un-maker by disclosing someone’s trans status.
5. Admirers, chasers and other people attracted to trans folks
In point number 4 above, I talk about people who might become attracted to a trans person they have just met but are unaware of their trans status. For the issue I discuss here, I refer to certain people, non-trans men and women, who have a significant attraction to trans people in general. Sometimes these individuals can be easily spotted vying for the attention of (or maybe even harassing or groping) trans people at transgender conferences or at public community functions, and some of them post ads on Craigslist looking for sexual hook ups and/or dates with trans men and women.
These particular folks might be classified as “chasers” or “admirers.” While some of them objectify, sexualize and fetishize trans people, some do not. Personally, I sometimes find it hard to tell the difference. (Matt Kailey has written a couple of great posts about people with trans attractions and the fine line between preference versus fetish, where trans people can be either sexualized or considered sexy.)
And so if someone tells you that they are attracted to trans people and/or would like to meet a trans person for dating and/or sex, the first response should not be to tell them about any trans people whom you might know personally unless you already know how your trans friends feel about this subject. Although some trans folks are okay with (or even prefer) dating non-trans people with trans attractions, some trans people don’t want anything to do with them, whether those with trans attractions happen to be admirers/chasers or not. Unless you know for sure, it’s best to first ask the trans person(s) in your life whether they would be interested in being introduced to such a person.
6. When trans people don’t look male or female “enough” (to you)
If you know a transitioning trans person, the sex they were assigned at birth might be imprinted in your mind, especially if you’ve known them since an early point in their process or before they started transitioning. Consequently, you might not have really noticed their slow physical transformation and/or you might think that despite their physical changes, they don’t really look like their true gender. And so when you introduce the trans person to others, you might think that you have to out them as trans as a way to provide an explanation for their androgynous or gender-variant appearance. You might think that outing them would be helpful, so people don’t get confused.
However, you’re making an assumption that everyone else sees the trans person the same way that you do and you might be wrong. You might actually create confusion if you out the trans person to people who already see the trans person as their true self.
And even if someone is confused about a trans person’s gender, so what? A person’s confusion should not supersede a trans person’s privacy. Personally, I can’t imagine an individual suffering harm from their confusion over the appearance of someone else, but outing a trans person can be harmful to them, so let the confused person muddle through. More than likely they’ll manage just fine.
7. Because being trans is not necessarily who we are
Many trans people simply see themselves as men and women. Being trans is not who they are – being a man or a woman is who they are. The trans piece is a medical condition and not a definition of them as a person, so they shouldn’t be identified by it.
8. Education, enlightenment, diversity training and the “poster child excuse”
Very early in my process a (former) friend of mine outed me to her college-aged children without my permission and then tried to justify it by making me the poster boy for her kids’ diversity training. Since then, I have been surprised at the number of people who have wanted to do the same after I have come out to them (but at least they asked me first).
So if you have an urge to teach someone about diversity and you want to enlighten and educate them in order to help them be a better citizen and a more accepting human being, and to do it, you are going to tell them all about the trans person you know, stifle that thought. Unless you have asked the trans person involved whether they would mind being the subject of someone’s education on humanity, it would be best to leave the trans person out of the lesson.
9. It doesn’t matter that a trans person is out to some people
A trans person you know might seem to be out to a lot of people, and that might lead you to presume that they don’t mind being out as trans, and so that might let you assume that it would be okay to disclose their trans status to someone else, but as with other assumptions, it’s best not to make this one because you might be wrong.
10. Outing a trans person to another trans person
On the surface, it might seem okay to tell one trans person about another trans person you know, but that would be another assumption that might be incorrect. Each trans person should be asked whether they wish to be a subject of discussion between you and another trans person or whether they want to be introduced to the other as trans. Believe it or not, some trans folks don’t even want other trans folks to know that they’re trans.
11. Outing a trans person sets them up for discrimination
I don’t think that I have to convince anyone reading this blog about the existence of rampant discrimination against trans people in jobs, housing, education, health care, social services, etc. It stands to reason, then, that outing a trans person can set them up for discrimination. I can think of several trans men I know who lost their jobs when their trans status was revealed to the wrong people. Once you release that information, you lose control of it and you can’t track where it goes, which might be to someone who can discriminate against the outed trans person. Keeping their personal information safe and discreet helps the trans people you know avoid becoming the victims of discrimination.
12. Outing a trans person can erase who they are in the eyes of others
If you disclose a trans person’s status, you can render them invisible. It’s like magic. One minute, the trans person is no different than any other man or woman, then they’re outed and poof, in the minds of some people, they’re immediately transformed into the gender they were assigned as birth, or they may be seen as a non-person or a fake person or someone who’s trying to fool everyone around them. The trans person’s true self disappears and they become, in the eyes of others, someone who doesn’t even really exist. Speaking from experience, that feels like crap. Please don’t put people in that position by outing them as trans.
13. Disclosing the birth names of trans people
This point is a bit different from the others because it’s about outing one thing about a trans person, but it fits into the topic of disclosure. I have decided to add it here because a number of non-trans people over the past few years have nonchalantly disclosed to me the birth names of other trans people that they know.
What they likely did not realize was that some trans people fiercely guard the name they were given at birth and would consider its disclosure to be embarrassing, hurtful and/or offensive. For some trans folks, their birth name represents a person who they are not and a period of their life they would like to leave behind them.
All that aside, what is the point of revealing a trans person’s birth name anyway? A trans person’s real name is the one they have chosen that matches their gender and true self and that’s the only name that people need to know.
Therefore, unless a trans person has specifically and directly asked you to please disperse their birth name about with wild abandon, the polite and respectful thing to do would be to keep it to yourself if you happen to know it.
14. Whose business is it anyway?
Ultimately, the bottom line is that a person’s trans status is their personal information, their history, their story, their life, and it’s not anyone else’s place to disclose it.
The only instances I can think of when it would be okay to out someone as trans would be if the trans person specifically requested it, say, for example, during their coming out process and they asked a trusted friend or relative to help inform people, or if they were involved in some sort of medical emergency and couldn’t speak for themselves, and for the latter I’d still be hesitant.
And with that, we come to the end of 14 reasons why outing a trans person is not okay. I hope that this little public service announcement has helped to shed some light on this topic for readers who previously might not have realized these issues. Some readers might disagree with some of my points or might have points of their own to add. I invite everyone to join the discussion.